When filmmakers approach projects that are widely known and have already been explored by other artists, the most important thing they face is the question of originality. How will they stay faithful to a timeless story while also creating something fresh and viewable?
In director Robert Zemeckis’s estimation, finding originality in his retelling of “A Christmas Carol” is a matter of technical modernity — specifically in his use of the modern technique called “performance capture.” This process involves the transference of live motion to 3-D animation, and it has been used in three of Zemeckis’s films (“The Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and now “A Christmas Carol”).
“When I was doing Beowulf, I realized that (performance capture) is a great form to reintroduce classic stories in a new way, to a new generation of moviegoers,” Zemeckis said.
“This is because you can create a story that’s visually modern. Many of these stories have great spectacle in them which makes them difficult to do visually. So in the case of “Christmas Carol,” you get a chance to realize the story in the very spectacular and real way that Dickens wrote it.”
The process itself is long and tedious, but ultimately produces the results Zemeckis wants.
“You walk the actors through performance capture very thoroughly and very extensively, and you explain as much as you can. No matter how I explain to them what the experience is going to be like, it’s impossible to imagine until they do it,” he said.
The technical aspect of performance capture does put additional responsibility on the actors as well.
“The thing that weirds them out the most is having to put the leotard on,” he said.
“Performance capture is like doing black-box theater, where you have minimal props, no sets, no lighting, no costume. The actors immediately fall in love with it because they understand that it’s all about performance.”
Of these actors, Jim Carrey was cast as Ebenezer Scrooge as well as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Though the decision to cast Carrey in several roles may appear to be the result of convenience rather than deliberate intent, the reasons for this are primarily psychological: Zemeckis says that since Scrooge’s visions are the result of internal fears, it is only natural that the apparitions that haunt him be extensions of his alter ego.
According to Zemeckis, Disney’s newest rendering of “A Christmas Carol” will be carried by both Carrey’s sense of humor as well as his sharp sense of improvisation.
Zemeckis also wishes to educate the public on the lesser known aspects of “Carol” with his rendition of the classic tale. Viewers who were treated to a sneak preview of the film walked away remarking they had never realized certain aspects of the film’s plot existed in Dickens’s original creation. Though Zemeckis’s love of the surreal and the fantastic may be implied by his involvement in films like “Beowulf” and this most recent undertaking, his passions for them are obvious:
“I want people to realize that this is one of the greatest stories ever written.”
Zemeckis believes his rendering of “A Christmas Carol” will pay homage to Dickens’s work by interpreting the author’s voice through a medium that was unavailable in Dickens’s time — namely the lens of 3-D cinema. Here’s hoping that we aren’t wrong for believing in his artistic vision.
“A Christmas Carol” opens in theaters today.